Every year, the winners of Nebraska's state high school speech and drama competition are invited to perform their winning material on public TV. But this year, they're running things a little differently. One of the winners in the poetry category, you see, made the mistake of choosing "controversial" material that openly questions and ridicules the gender binary. And officials told him Nebraska "wasn't ready" for that kind of gay-talk on public television, so he'd have to drop it before the taping, or else. Commence shitstorm.
Michael Barth of rural Gordon-Rushville High School chose to perform in competition three pieces that deal with gender identity issues — "Same Love," "Manly Man" by Brad Hathaway, and "Swingset," a lovely spoken word piece by Andrea Gibson about an androgynous-looking preschool teacher that reads, in part,
Frat boys, drunken, screaming, leaning out of the windows of their daddys' SUVs, "Hey! Are you a faggot or a dyke?" And I wonder what would happen if I met up with them in the middle of the night.
Then of course there's always the somehow not-quite-bright enough fluorescent light of the public restroom, "Sir! Sir, do you realize this is the ladies' room?" "Yes, ma'am, I do, it's just that I didn't feel comfortable sticking this tampon up my penis in the men's room."
But the best, the best is always the mother at the market, sticking up her nose while pushing aside her daughter's wide eyes, whispering "Don't stare, it's rude." And I want to say, "Listen, lady, the only rude thing I see is your paranoid parental hand pushing aside the best education on self that little girl's ever gonna get, living with your Maybelline lips, stairmaster hips, synthetic kiwi-vanilla smelling beauty; so why don't you take your pinks and blues, your boy-girl rules and shove them in that car with your fucking issue of Cosmo, because tomorrow, I start my day with twenty-eight minds who know a hell of a lot more than you. And if I show up in a pink frilly dress, those kids won't love me any more, or less."
Heavy stuff for a high schooler, for sure, but Barth's performance omitted the most NSFW language; he performed a "cleaned up version." No one at any competitions leading up to last week's state contest raised issues with his content. Further, this material, cleaned up or not, is brave stuff for a small town kid to read out loud and dramatically in public in front of his peers and a panel of judges. Barth did such a good job that he won the Nebraska School Activity Association's speech competition in the poetry category.
Only a day before Barth was supposed to perform his material for NET's "Best of Speech" program, someone from the NSAA called his school and told his coach in no uncertain terms that he'd have to change his material. According to a source close to the story, the caller informed Barth's coach that "Nebraska is not ready for this." The NSAA has rules, you see, that allow speech of student competitors to be censored if it offends the moral sensibility of the community. And apparently not conforming to gender expectations is immoral.
Barth's coach attempted to connect with Rhonda Blanford-Green, executive director of the NSAA, and she hung up. In a statement to the Omaha World Herald, Blanford-Green justified the move by saying, "We don't want to use a showcase for the best of the best to promote personal agendas."
For context, other poem performances shown in the past have tackled such neutral topics as feminism and racial issues.
Shitstorm elements, assemble!
There's already a Facebook group that's sprouted up to support Barth and his choice of material. His speech coach is being inundated with media requests. The freakin' Nebraska ACLU has issued some stern words for the NSAA, accusing the organization of violating Barth's right to free speech. Here's an excerpt from their public statement:
Claiming that this particular speech advances a political agenda is particularly troubling. The lives of gay and transgender people should be able to be discussed without being labeled as a political agenda. If we receive complaints from students, including Michael Barth, that have been impacted by the NSAA's unconstitutional policy, we will consider legal action to ensure the NSAA respects free speech of students.
Shitstorm Nebraska continued to gather steam as the TV station upon which Barth's poetry performance was supposed to air released a statement, which basically reads like dramatic middle finger to the NSAA.
David Feingold, NET's assistant general manager of content, says NET is prepared to broadcast whichever selection Barth chooses to perform during the taping of the program Thursday.
"Michael Barth is this year's NSAA Class C1 poetry champion. NET Television is ready to record Michael's award winning presentation, as originally planned. When Michael comes to the studio tomorrow, we'll record the performance of his choosing, and will be included in the completed Best of the Best program which will air on NET 1 on Sunday, April 20th, at 9:00 a.m. and rebroadcast on NET 2. The full program will also be available on line," Feingold said.
After the Shitstorm had already intensified to a Category 5, the NSAA reconsidered its position and reinstated Barth's right to read gender stereotype questioning material as originally planned. Here's an excerpt from an email I received from one NSAA official:
The Executive Director in collaboration with the NSAA Board of Directors, Nebraska Educational Television and Gordon-Rushville High School administration has made the decision to allow Michael to deliver his poetry interpretation as originally performed at the NSAA Speech Championships. "The intent of my decision was not to stifle freedom of speech, but rather to avoid any negative connotations for individuals within this statewide production," said NSAA Executive Director Rhonda Blanford-Green. "The NSAA will continue to advocate for all students and promote equitable opportunities through activity participation."
And here we are back at the beginning again, except this time around, everyone's mad. I feel like I just rewatched the How I Met Your Mother finale. (Too soon?)
They should have just let the kid read his damn material in the first place.
Image via Getty